Author Drew Austin
IMAGES Bram Fritz
Issue 04

Our homes are becoming ever more connected. Modem joined forces with Yujie Wang, human-computer interaction researcher at MIT, and Bram Fritz, speculative designer, to explore what a less intrusive, less demanding version of the user interface at home could be like. Ambient Interfaces imagines a domestic UI that complements the human environment, rather than imposing itself upon the habitants.

Digital technology has transformed countless facets of life in recent decades, but one of its most significant upheavals has been the home, a domain that has exhibited little outward change. Stodgy and slow to adapt, domestic space has lagged the disruptive fervor seen elsewhere; by staying relatively stable as everything around it has changed, the home has been recontextualized by technology, assuming entirely new roles and functions without visibly evolving much. Housing, as it turns out, is difficult for software to completely “eat,” as it is hard to melt down into pure information, and costly to retrofit.

At its most fundamental, a home is a shelter for the people who inhabit it permanently. But a home is also the site of a wide variety of activities, and the place where we keep the belongings that facilitate those activities. A growing number of these belongings are digital: recent replacements for analog household appliances and systems, now operated via user interfaces, such as connected lights, connected locks, and connected doorbells. As this technology continues to evolve, we layer these domestic interfaces onto the existing home, often haphazardly, without the necessary time or budget to seamlessly integrate the new and the old.

In 1923, Le Corbusier described the home as “a machine for living in,” but machines require perfect coordination of their parts in order to work, hence the modernist approach that he helped pioneer: Tear everything down and then rebuild it from scratch — again, an approach that is frequently unavailable, if not actually harmful.

INTERFACE EXPLORATION 001 — This UI draws upon the aesthetic of Japanese zen gardens, displaying the real-time locations of a household’s members by tracing elegant circular patterns on thin layers of pebble stones, with computer-guided metal ball bearings representing each individual.

The contemporary home, in addition to housing the interfaces that enable humans to operate the machine for living in, is increasingly an interface itself, mediating between its inhabitants and the outside world. This is the true domestic transformation that the internet precipitated: providing a direct digital link between interior and exterior, even as the home’s physical walls and roofs separate the two, delineating public and private space and sheltering those within. TikTok, for example, has made the center of the home — the bathroom in particular — a primary portal to the outside world.

Meanwhile, the front door is no longer merely a place where residents and visitors enter the home, but a pathway for delivery goods and a risk vector to monitor with doorbell cameras. Paradoxically, the home’s exterior is where we go to escape from its devices and their pervasive connectivity, a site of solitude away from the digital public with which our screens put us in constant contact.

In other words, digital technology has effectively turned the home inside-out. Although most homes still look essentially the same as they did a half century ago, their relationship to individuals as well as their surrounding environment has changed significantly.

If this was already true several years ago, the pandemic suddenly solidified the arrangement in early 2020, curtailing our physical access to the public realm and intensifying our reliance on digital channels. Stuck within our homes, which now sheltered us from a virus as well as the usual hazards, the internet became our lifeline to broader civilization, which was no longer embodied in physical space, but globally distributed and instantaneously accessible. Homes ceased to operate as constrained sites of domestic activity that complemented external places like offices, gyms, and restaurants. Instead, they became nodes through which the bulk of culture was transmitted, largely through digital channels. Early in the pandemic, society amounted to a vast network of these nodes, a world-encompassing mesh of users quarantined within connected homes, communicating with one another via a diverse array of domestically-situated devices.

INTERFACE EXPLORATION 002 — Inspired by the traditional Chinese art of Dishu, this ambient UI writes an ephemeral haiku on bathroom wall tile every morning, providing information about that day’s weather. The wall tile is actually a computer-controlled drip system that generates the haikus using clear water as ink.

If the 20th-century home was a machine for living, then, today’s home is an operating system for living, coordinating an ever-changing array of needs as well as the devices that meet those needs. This implies a new set of requirements for the domestic program as well as a new relationship between the home and the outside world. As an operating system, however, the contemporary home’s design is far from optimal. Within the domestic environment, computing assumes a spatial dimension — one that its interfaces haven’t yet embraced. Inside of our homes, the pains of digitally-mediated life are frequently magnified rather than alleviated, while the benefits of such existence are not fully captured.

At present, the dominant domestic interface, by far, is the screen. Since the emergence of the television in the mid-20th century, screens have multiplied within the home, and their uses have multiplied more rapidly still. The television was a one-way medium of communication, a domestic gathering point for passive observers — a new kind of furniture. With the video game console, domestic screens became interactive. The rise of desktop personal computers introduced a more powerful type of screen to the home, one that frequently commanded its own dedicated room and functioned as a control center for a growing range of activities. Laptops, smartphones, and tablets subsequently distributed personal computing throughout the physical environment, both public and private, meaning that every room in the house could become a “computer room,” at least temporarily, with a screen as its focal point.

Computing is now ubiquitous both inside and outside the home, an aether in which we are all constantly immersed — largely thanks to the proliferation of these screen interfaces. For all that they enable, however, screens are also flawed. They constantly hypnotize us, distracting us from friends and family, muddling our thoughts, and postponing our sleep. They beam outside agendas into our homes in the form of ads and social media hot takes. We track our ever-increasing screen time while desperately seeking strategies to reduce it.

The fact that we allow screens such privileged positions within our most intimate living spaces reflects the path dependence that so often constrains our technology usage. We already have screens and understand them, so we look for new ways to use them. More importantly, perhaps, screens are easy to graft onto existing domestic space. Nonetheless, it is not obviously true that the best hardware for playing games and watching movies is also ideal for the many other domestic purposes that computers now serve. Yet we continue to encounter those screens everywhere we look.

INTERFACE EXPLORATION 003 — This adaptive UI invokes ancient sundials, synthesizing personal health metrics to reflect an individual’s current state in the form of artificially-reproduced sunlight and shadows displayed on a room’s walls, and producing a calming effect in response to detected stress.

A more suitable approach to the domestic interface would move beyond the screen, incorporating design principles that better accommodate the humans who use these interfaces. Such an approach would be mindful, sensorial, adaptive, context-aware, and responsible — five key principles for designing ambient interfaces at home.

Ambient interfaces in our domestic environments would offer a mindful alternative to the screen’s harsh attention grabs. Such interfaces would facilitate subconscious and intuitive interaction, rather than loudly announcing themselves. Mindfulness can be incorporated directly into household devices using technology such as wireless sensing and imperceptible computing, which would enable these interfaces to operate in the background rather than foreground, minimizing their presence and preserving a calm domestic environment for inhabitants’ usage.

Ambient interfaces would also interact with a wider range of human senses, particularly sound and touch, corresponding more fully to our actual experience of our environments. Screens are just one possible interface of many, offering a limited range of interaction possibilities that ambient interfaces would expand. Electronic textiles and auditory ambient feedback are just two promising avenues for engaging the senses of touch and hearing, respectively, encouraging more tactile and multi-sensorial interactions.

Ambient interfaces would be adaptive and responsive to their users’ ever-changing needs, preserving their valuable attention and cognitive bandwidth by anticipating those users’ physical conditions and emotional states via sensory input, and tailoring their responses accordingly. Existing screen-based domestic interfaces are more likely to alter or manipulate their users’ emotional states than respond with empathy, as they frequently lack the capacity to do otherwise. Adaptive devices have the potential to make the home a more peaceful and comforting environment, as it should be.

Similarly, ambient interfaces would be aware of their physical context, gathering input from the home environment itself as well as from its inhabitants using device-free localization and context-aware computing. Together, these qualities will further enable these interfaces to disappear into the background, freeing the home’s occupants from the task of constantly attending to them, and achieving better alignment between humans and their domestic environment.

Finally, ambient interfaces in the home must assume responsibility for the intimacy of their setting. Privacy, of course, is of the utmost importance — this technology will adhere to privacy by design — as are reliability and inclusivity, which are supported by universal design principles. Unlike analog objects in the home, connected devices introduce more complexity along with the risks that accompany that complexity. If a home’s inhabitants cannot trust the digital tools they live with, no amount of utility will compensate for that.

Regardless of technological advancements, the home’s enduring purpose remains the same: to shelter its human inhabitants and to facilitate the wide variety of activities and tasks that they perform within. Metaphors like “a machine for living” attest to this broad purpose and describe its constantly evolving nature. Interfaces, along with digital technology itself, are recent additions to the domestic environment. Because their incorporation into the home has too often been haphazard and suboptimal, serving the needs of the devices themselves more than the humans who use them, this technology has not yet fulfilled its potential. By creating ambient interfaces according to a more intentional set of design principles, we can rectify this imbalance and affirm the home’s proper role as a support system for the humans who live within — making it a true operating system for living.

Issue 04
AUTHOR Drew Austin
IMAGES Bram Fritz
Design Principles Yujie Wang
DATE February 11th, 2022
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